RogerBW's Blog

Full Dark House, Christopher Fowler 07 October 2018

2003 police procedural mystery/horror, first in the Bryant and May series. In the modern day, a bomb destroys the office of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, where boss Arthur Bryant was working late. John May, while mourning his friend and colleague, looks back on their first case together, during the Blitz.

It may well be because I've just finished with Blackout/All Clear but this seemed vastly better: most of the book is set in 1940, and the clichés are there, but they're the real clichés (like the police station with the sign "Be Good – We're Still Open"). The case takes place during an invented production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (the show that gave the world the can-can) – but it takes place at a real place, the actual Palace Theatre on Cambridge Circus (during my years travelling into central London it was where Les Mis happened), and the history and layout of the place are thoroughly linked into the story; Fowler has evidently spent a lot of effort finding out about the place, and perhaps sometimes he gets a little too enthusiastic about sharing this with the reader, but for me at least it still worked.

And when the action moves outside the theatre, that works too: the sounds and smells of the Blitz, the aftermath of bombings that's not just piles of rubble but canted-over traffic lights, the inadequate light, the careful looking at the weather to see if bombers will come over tonight. There's a motorcycle chase which I can track street by street, down Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly Circus, then down Piccadilly, past the Ritz, then through the side roads of Mayfair; Fowler gives a sense of place which suggests that he's done more than just look at some street maps. (And nobody is killed and then left on a pile of rubble to be mistaken for a victim of bombing, which became a cliché of Blitz mysteries almost as soon as they started.)

The story itself starts as horror (the first death is very reminiscent of one of Fowler's short horror stories) but is much more interested in exploring what's going on and why; to me the drawback of most horror is its incuriousness, an unwillingness to attempt to determine the nature of the threat any more than is needed to survive it, but this doesn't suffer from that problem. Indeed, there are baroque theories constructed here that go far beyond the evidence, really justified only by the intellectual curiosity of the participants. (Though I still think that to a classically educated Englishman the association of "Three Hundred" with Greece would lead first to the Spartans at Thermopylae, not to conspiracy theories about businessmen controlling the world.)

There's a certain amount of the Phantom of the Opera, and some of the intricacies deal with how such a plot could mesh with reality. Perhaps some of the theatrical types are slightly too much larger-than-life to ring true to someone who knows that world, but I don't.

I found it all highly enjoyable, and I plan to read more in this series. Followed by The Water Room.

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See also:
Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis


  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 03:45pm on 07 October 2018

    I'm not classically educated and what I know about Greece has been gained from role playing games and watching Ray Harryhausen films. And 300 associated with Greece means the Spartans to me, it cannot mean anything else. It spreads ripples through history.

  2. Posted by Chris Bell at 06:16pm on 07 October 2018

    Some of the Thespians Dahling whom I have known have been vastly larger than life. (But I haven't read this book so I can't know whether the ones in it are even larger.)

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